To Whom Do Children Belong? Melissa Moschella’s Defense of Parents’ Rights

A new book defends the view that parents have primary authority over their children. The role of the state is to help parents, not to take over tasks that are properly parental.

Melissa Moschella begins her new book on parents’ rights and children’s education with a quotation from Melissa Harris-Perry that might be familiar to Public Discourse readers: “we have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents or kids belong to their families and recognize that kids belong to whole communities.”

The implications of such a claim are breathtaking. If Harris-Perry is right, where the rearing and educating of children are concerned, the community—and in particular, the political community—should determine both the ends of such care and education and the means to be pursued. The community, in other words, possesses primary authority. Even if that authority is not complete—if, for example, parents also have some authority over their children—such familial authority is at best only partial, derived from an implicit grant from the state.

Such claims strike traditionally-minded persons as outrageous. They seem to be precisely backwards—the reverse of what is true. Families, we think, are prior to the state, which exists to protect families. Within families, parents have primary authority over their children, and even if that authority is partially shared with the state, the primary role of the state is to help parents, not to take over tasks that are properly parental.

Moschella’s book is a vigorous defense of this traditional view. It is particularly welcome because the most important work in recent decades on children’s education has been done by liberals working in the Harris-Perry vein. Some such liberals, such as Amy Gutmann, argue that the primary concern in children’s education is civic: that children be made into good citizens of a liberal democratic republic. Others, such as James Dwyer, argue that the primary concern should be for children’s autonomy. But for thinkers in both these camps, the primary responsibility for determining the ends of education, and for ensuring that children receive the favored form of education, lies with the state. The state has the right—even the obligation—to override parental judgment when parents do not willingly go along.

The Authority of Parents

Moschella’s argument against these liberal approaches is straightforward. Parents have authority to make educational (and other) decisions for their children, and state authority can intervene only when parents default on those obligations, as in cases of abuse or neglect. Because parents have proper authority, their decisions regarding their children defeat other agents’ reasons even in many cases in which the parents are judged to be deficient in their exercise of authority, or in which the particular way they are raising their children is thought to be less-than-perfect. Because it would be wrong to interfere with parental exercise of authority in such cases, we can speak meaningfully here of parents’ rights regarding their children.

These rights can be exercised even when children are educated in public schools. Parents do not (or, at least, they need not) give their children over to the authority of the state when they opt for public schooling; they simply make use of aid offered by the state. So parents should be able to receive generous opt-outs and accommodations when public school teaching runs contrary to what parents have determined is best or appropriate for their children.

Where do parental authority and parental rights come from? In a recent Public Discourse essay, I argued that rights to free speech in some cases are derivative of obligations people have. Moschella’s approach to parental rights and authority is similar: parents have authority, and rights, because they have special obligations to their children. These obligations of care and concern cannot usually be avoided, are very stringent, and last through a child’s life until he or she reaches young adulthood.

And so finally we arrive at the foundational question: on what are the obligations of care and concern that parents have to their children grounded or based? Moschella’s answer to this question is, I believe, the most interesting, provocative, and original part of her book. In the remainder of this review, I’ll summarize and discuss her answer. In a second essay, I will pursue some thoughts that Moschella’s account occasions with regard to adoptive parenting.

The Parent-Child Bond

Suppose that James, an infant born just yesterday, is orphaned at the very beginning of his life; his parents are both killed in a car accident a day after he is born. Thankfully, James is adopted by friends of his parents. They have recently lost a young child, so the mother can even nurse James. James is raised in a loving home, with siblings, and instructed in virtue and important life skills until he arrives at a mature adulthood. What, if anything, can James be said to lack?

We cannot say that James lacks parental love, and this will be important to my subsequent essay. But we can say that James grows up lacking the love and care of his biological parents, a love that only those parents could have given him.

Now in one sense, it is trivially true that only his biological parents could have given him their love. For it is true of each person who could love you, that if he does not love you, then you are deprived of love that only that person could have given you. But Moschella wants to dig deeper here, to give a nontrivial account of the way in which loss of a biological parent’s love is a harm to a child, no matter how that love is compensated for in the rest of his life by the love of others, including adoptive parents.

The nontrivial sense of irreplaceable love is the sort we associate with personal relationships: if Smith is my friend, then Smith’s love and friendship are irreplaceable to me. There are goods for me that Smith’s friendship provides that no other friendship can provide, and there are times when it is specifically Smith’s friendship that I need and desire.

Moschella grounds the obligations of biological parents to their children in the special personal relationship that being a biological parent generates. Specifically, biological parenting inevitably brings with it the relationship of being biologically responsible for another’s existence, and being biologically implicated in another’s identity. And these in turn make it the case that there are goods that only biological parents can provide: the good of being loved by one who is biologically responsible for one’s existence, and the good of being loved and raised by one who is uniquely and closely related to one’s identity. Children raised by their biological parents, for example, can see in their parents’ lives examples both good and bad of how traits to which they may be disposed can, should, or should not be allowed to grow and develop.

James, in my story above, is deprived of both goods. He will, it is to be hoped, grow up knowing that his biological parents loved him, but he is deprived of the good of being loved and cared for by the persons who are biologically responsible for his existence. And while he might learn quite a bit about who his parents were, and thus come to know much about himself, he is equally deprived of much in this regard. But because biological parents are uniquely situated to provide these goods as a result of their personal biological relationship to their children, those parents have obligations to provide those goods; and thus have authority, and thus have rights.

This is a challenging account. I will say that it was only through reflecting on premature losses of biological parents in my own family, immediate and extended, that I came fully to appreciate its merit.

Parents, Marriage, and Family

There is much else of interest and importance in Moschella’s book. But here, in closing, I will make one further comment, less critical than amplificatory. This point will also establish the ground for tomorrow’s reflections on adoption.

Moschella’s book is about the authority of biological parents, as the title indicates; but it is also about the authority of families, and sometimes Moschella focuses on families rather than parents. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the bulk of her argument is in fact about parents in particular, not families more generally, although she indicates the direction that the more family-centered argument would go.

Let me explain what I mean. In speaking about the relationship of biological parentage to a child’s identity, Mosechella makes reference to the identity concerns of children conceived with donor gametes. Such children feel the lack of a connection to those who are biologically related. Elsewhere, Moschella has argued effectively that gamete donation involves a radical abandonment of precisely the obligations that she details in this book. It is an immoral practice that should be abandoned.

Nevertheless, gamete donors are biological parents, and the arguments about the immorality of gamete donation depend upon this truth. Similarly, we could speak of the obligations attendant upon biological parentage of a man who had a one-night stand, only to discover later that he had become a father; of single women deliberately seeking pregnancy in order to have a child; or of fathers and mothers cohabiting but not married. And again, rightly so, for all these parents have obligations in virtue of their biological-personal relationship to their children.

But the truly focal case of obligation, and hence authority and rights is, it seems to me, the case that Moschella briefly mentions in her discussion of Aquinas: the case of co-parenting by spouses that extends from the spouses’ conjugal union in which the child comes to be as the fulfillment and fruit of that union. As Moschella notes, children do not come into existence fully formed as persons: they must be cared for, and educated, not only in traditional “academic” subjects, but in virtue, to a point at which they are independent moral agents. Spouses together have authority to do this for their children, and this authority has a claim, I think, to be the paradigm case of authority where children are concerned.

Moschella notes that the argument from biological parenting and the argument from marriage, as we could call it, are complementary. I think this is right, and it suggests that there is yet more work to be done on the natural authority of parents and families. But Moschella has given us an excellent start. Her well-written and tightly argued book is an important intellectual achievement on an issue to which philosophers have not given adequate attention.

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